Getting the most bang for the bucks

As captain of finances, it’s the CFO’s job to make sure treasure chests are opened for the right opportunities. But to get hold of the Absolut keys, aspiring seekers need to navigate their cases through a tough archipelago, where all arguments are scrutinized by the warm hearted but highly competitive Irishman named Donny Tobin. We had a chat with him on how to make or break a case at the Absolut Company.

You’ve had a long career at Pernod Ricard. What’s your view on how the business have evolved over the years?

While we have grown as a business many ingredients have stayed constant… the amazing culture, great people, and strong brands. But over time, I think that the organization has become much more agile. It’s in many ways fair to say that the industry isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago, when I joined the Pernod Ricard. Competition is more intense, consumers more dynamic. We are also bigger now and that means we also have more fire power to compete. But being bigger also means that expectations grow and as an organization, I think it’s crucial that you’re able to roll with the changes, and not try to fight them. For Pernod Ricard, I think that having adapted a more flexible attitude to embrace change, has made us more resilient to fast shifts in the markets. We have embarked on a digital transformation to further expand our business model, which I think has also helped us a lot during the pandemic. The ultimate ambition is to evolve into a platform company, where the brands and people can grow. Our people are resilient, our Business is resilient and that has proven to be successful in trying times.

TAC is working hard to foster and retain an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit within the company. How do you work with innovation in your team?

The overall creativity that’s inherent in TAC is amazing. As an organization, we’re really open to stretch the boundaries. And Finance is no different, playing a key role, whether on the product side, where we need to understand the consumer needs to fully be able to act as a sounding board for creative solutions or on the technology side to allow data to be more relevant and move faster to support decisions. It’s our job to connect the ‘business dots’ to enable innovation and to make sure we’re invest behind the right choices and at the right level. Of course, our Group Finance 4.0 vision is anchored on this progressive mindset.

Is development constantly required or are there still some old truths that always apply, especially in the field of finance?

Consumers continuously evolve… therefore organizations like TAC need to also evolve and be at the forefront of culture and creativity. Same also applies to Finance. Not only do we need to ensure that the foundations are strong, but we also need to embrace progress. Today, I think we have achieved a near perfect balance of a solid foundation and high-flying creativity revolving around that. And that is what helps us to continuously evolve as an organization. There are no revolutions, just progression, right. Both TAC and Pernod Ricard are organizations with solid core values and principles but with a curious mindset and that has helped us both become and continue to be successful. Our values and foundations stay the same, but our creativity can rotate freely around them, with Finance playing a great business partnering role.

What does the motto Passion for Progression mean to you?

I think that I didn’t perhaps fully appreciate the meaning until I came to TAC. The company has always stood for something and after coming here I now truly understand the value of always supporting progression and to move forward with the flow. I, as a person, am driven by passion. I believe that something inside you must burn for you to feel motivated, enabled and to be creative. I wholeheartedly support the notion of progression as a means to succeed – as a business and on a personal level.

What areas do you see as most important to continue to develop within TAC?

We need to take a closer look at where we want to win and how to win it. It’s a big part of my job to add value to the company by removing the mist and clarify the road forward. To help choose which battles to engage in and which challenges that are worth accepting. And this is something that I think we’re already good at, but that we can refine further to do even better. We have our strategic North Star, it’s our compass, now it’s about trusting people and empowering them to find their own way based on their experience, knowledge and skills.

What values​​ do you think Absolut creates?

Together, Audacious, Committed… we have great values inherent in our brand and one thing we’re particularly good at is to stay true to these. We, as a company, are committed to do the right thing and I as a person was brought up with the same type of values. I want to win, but I only want to win in the right way, and I think the same goes for The Absolut Company.

Why did you join The Absolut Company?

Well, for starters, the job was offered to me. It took about 2 minutes to graciously accept the offer with a lot of pleasure. It’s a new experience for me; with new brands and in a new country. I’d only been to Sweden twice prior to joining The Absolut Company, but I had such a great feeling about coming here. Professionally, yes it was also a leadership step up, but The Absolut Company is the biggest in the family, with amazingly fun and relevant brands. I wanted an audacious experience and Absolut is for sure offering this. 

How are you as a leader?

Although competitive and ambitious, I’d like to think that I’m a kind of down to earth leader. I hope I understand people and what makes them tick and how that energy can be transferred to the organization. I empower as much I can in my role as a leader and I put a lot of trust in my teams. Being a team player at heart, I love to hang around people and to be present where and when things are happening. Of course, I can be challenging if needed but I’m trying to be careful about when to play that card!!.

Do you have the same approach in the Management team?

I’m definitely not the quiet Irishman sitting in the corner… I think the other members of the management team see me as a guy who is always in the game but isn’t that easily stressed. And that I’m a guy who’s also seen as authentic. For me, it’s important to stay true to my values – in all aspects of life – both personal and professional.

One might say that you’ve been all over the place – being an expat Irishmen who has lived everywhere from Sydney to New York and who’s now based in Stockholm. Do you have a favorite spot in the world?

I like so many places, so it’s hard to pick a favorite as it keeps changing. When you travel as much as I do, you tend to pick up new favorite places along the way. But if you twist my arm, I can’t get around the fact that I still love to come home to my hometown in Tipperary, Ireland. One other place that stands out is Nepal. I trekked up to the basecamp on Everest a few years ago and for me, that was one of the most humbling and down to earth experiences in my life. An unforgettable trip in a fantastic country.

Besides traveling and pushing your own limits, what are you passionate about outside of work?

I’m a competitive guy so I am naturally drawn to anything sports related. You might even say that I’m a sports addict. When I lived in the US, I loved to coach youth soccer-teams. I love to see kids evolve. I have a lot of energy that needs to be released and sports is my way of getting things out of my system. I don’t like to sit still; I don’t read books and I don’t watch a lot of Netflix. But I do follow sports.

Which are your favorite teams?

I’m a passionate Man United fan if we talk about football. For Hurling – that’s a typical Irish sport – I of course root for my hometown Tipperary. And finally, when I lived in the US, I got hooked on American football and for some odd reason Kansas City Chiefs became my team.  

What has been the most challenging moment in your career?

As a Finance director, I still find it somewhat challenging to overcome the prejudice about stiff shirts and ties, calculators, spreadsheets, and a dry sense of humor!!… Being an expat, it brings you the challenge of getting to know an organization quickly, ready to go from the start. But it takes time to settle in a new role, to plug in to an existing culture and finding out how you can add value. For one thing, I hope I never have to do this again in the middle of a pandemic, it was not easy from the other end of a screen. One of the greatest learnings of my life is that things are rarely as simple as they look on paper. Preconceptions are usually different to reality. You got to live the organization to understand the culture. In my experience, there’s never a one size fits all. When you move from role to role you need to spend some time understanding the people and the culture and adapt. And, maybe most importantly, you need to roll with the punches to rise to the challenges…. and have fun.

Paul Ricard had a motto to “make a friend every day” which is still a guiding principle within the group. What’s your best practice for achieving this?

I lean to people, it’s somewhat natural for me so I don’t need to read it every morning to remind me. I get my energy from people. In my life, I have some close friends, but many I like to hang out with and have great conversations with – preferably in a bar where you can have a drink and just chit chat about all and nothing.

What would you have done if you had not worked at TAC?

Well, that’s easy: Center Forward for Man United, of course. Or maybe enforcer at the back. To be honest, I have no regrets about my career. If I’d wanted to do something else, I would have done it. For me, it’s important to be attached and emotionally connected to what I do, and I have to say that for the last 18 years in Pernod Ricard, I’ve always felt that.

A partnership that keeps on growing

Absolut’s One source philosophy means that everything used to manufacture our world renown spirit comes from the nearby surroundings of our hometown Åhus, in Southern Sweden. One key ingredient in Absolut Vodka is the unique winter wheat that’s grown and harvested at the Råbelöf estate, some 20 kilometers north of Åhus. The collaboration between the distillery and the farm has been ongoing since the late 70’s. We had a chat with Erik Bæksted, CEO at Råbelöf estate, to get his view on the longstanding partnership between Absolut and Råbelöf.

How long have you been working together with The Absolut Company?

We have a very long relationship. I think we started our collaboration as early as 1979. And our partnership has evolved a lot over the years. Today, I think we’re the single largest supplier of winter wheat, where we account for about 7-8 percent of the total amount of wheat used in production, i.e. about 8,000 tons. The trust for each other is immense and we’re constantly talking about how to collaboratively improve our methods of working and how to help each other with best practice to reach our common goals.

What are the challenges of growing wheat in Sweden?

Sweden is very well suited for growing wheat, so we are relatively well off, I would say. Skåne’s climate is optimal for cultivating wheat and we have some of the best harvests in the world – together with Denmark, England, France and The Netherlands. By comparison, the United States only generates half the amount as us per harvest, and in Australia that figure is a third. Then of course the weather is always a challenge, but random weather conditions are part of being a farmer and it is a prerequisite for growing wheat in Sweden. The same applies to some extent to the various political challenges. Agriculture is a complex business that’s closely governed by the EU. And that’s easy to understand – our products aren’t just commodities, it’s a necessity. We’re literally putting food on people’s tables.

There is often talk about the value of organic farming, but you don’t label Råbelöf as an eco-farm. Why not?

Yes, we are perhaps a bit unconventional in our way of acting. But there is a lot to think and say about ecology and to grow organically. In my opinion, it is a way of farming that was done 80 years ago. And few businesses today are run in the same way as they were in the 40’s. Over the years, the progress has been made that allows us to be more efficient and produce more and get a product that is more consistent in quality from harvest to harvest. Today we can control a lot of different factors that weren’t possible to monitor before. The analogy is much like if you run a banking business – working organically is like going back to using a bank book. One can also add further complexity to the issue: it is a fact that the world suffers from food shortages and organic farming produces only half as much as we do, which – if everyone completely switched to organic farming – would inevitably lead to starvation. Today we get consistent harvests and avoid damages to the crops. So, I see no real intrinsic value in starting to grow organically. The way we live off the land is much more sustainable in the long run, if you ask me.

How are you affected by climate change?

So far, I don’t think that we’ve been affected to any greater extent – meaning that we haven’t had to adapt our farming methods. So, this is not a big problem for us – yet. If you look historically, wheat cultivation runs in 30-year cycles. Sometimes it’s warmer and sometimes it’s colder. Right now, I would say that we are in the midst of a warm period – but these are not so extreme deviations that we need to think about changing our cultivation concept. However, we are of course always looking into new ways of farming sustainable. We have, as an example, switched to biofuel in all our tractors. This has reduced our fuel consumption by several percent. Our manure is produced in such a way that minimal carbon dioxide is emitted.

The Absolut Company has introduced a new model for its suppliers to relate to. New criteria to relate to are climate, soil health and biodiversity. How do you work with this?

I’d say we already meet most of the criteria, so for us it will not impose any major changes to our ways of working. With that said, I have a hard time seeing that we will drive around with electric tractors in the fields. Globally, 80 percent of emissions come from fossil fuels and, as I mentioned, we have already switched to biofuel, which I think is good. When it comes to our work with soil health, we balance our consumption of natural fertilizers and commercial fertilizers. We whitewash the soil to maintain the correct pH value. The earth is what we live off, so we make sure to continuously take care of it so that it can deliver the same yield year after year.

A transparent partnership

Glass manufacturer Ardagh and The Absolut Company have been working closely together for more than three decades. The partnership is characterized by a mutual respect and a passion to always develop, push the envelope and do better. And latest in their great line of collaborations is the brand new Absolut bottle. We had a chat with Peter Gunnarsson, Key Account & Sales Manager at Ardagh on his thoughts on the development process of the new Absolut bottle and the secrets to keeping the partnership flame burning for 35 years and counting.

When did you get involved in the work of updating the Absolut bottle?
– We were introduced to the re-design project in March 2019. The new design of the glass bottle didn’t impose any major changes to our machines or the process where the bottle itself is manufactured. However, the decor turned out to be a little more challenging to get right. The front of the Absolut Vodka original is quite unchanged, but the back has been given a much more detailed print, which meant that we had to develop the frost color and create better conditions for the automatic camera inspection that takes place before the bottles are burned. The design of the Flavors range has been both simplified and made more difficult depending on which flavors you look at.

The very detailed decor on the back of the bottle

How long has the development process taken?
– The development of the glass bottle itself lasted for just over 2 years. On the other hand, to some extent the development of the new decor for both Absolut Vodka original and Flavor, for example the production of new artwork and the calibration of all different colors, is still ongoing. So, all in all, we’ve worked on this project for more than 2,5 years.

The artwork and the calibration of all different colors is still ongoing

What has been most challenging with the Absolut re-design project?
– The sheer scope of the project. The fact that both glass and decor were redone for all sizes has meant extremely extensive work during the development process. It has been – and still is – very tedious and challenging in terms of planning. With the old and the new bottles living side by side for some time, it’s an incredible puzzle in terms of planning to make sure we can deliver the new bottles at the same time as we are phasing out the old ones.

Can you make a completely sustainable glass packaging?
– An important thing that makes a product sustainable is its ability to be recycled. This is one of the strengths of glass as a material. It can be recycled to infinity. Through a well-functioning national system for recycling, most packaging can be recycled and become new glass at our facility. In Sweden, more than 94 percent of all glass is recycled. During manufacture, it is possible to use the recycled glass and also use as much fossil-free energy as possible during melting. Combined, these two facts make for a very sustainable glass packaging.

The Absolut bottles consist of just over 50 percent recycled glass

Are there any special sustainability requirements for Absolut’s products?
– Absolut is probably the player in the premium segment that puts the highest emphasis and demands on sustainability in the world. An example is the work done in recent years to increase the proportion of recycled glass by almost 20 percent. Today, the Absolut bottles consist of just over 50 percent recycled glass. This is truly unique and quite an achievement when it comes to making clear glass bottles. And that journey continues forward. It is also worth mentioning that we at Ardagh and our partners at The Absolut Company sit down together several times a year talking through everything that has to do with reducing waste and resources. Everything from LED lamps in warehouses to biogas in production is optimized.

You are one of Absolut’s most long-term partners, more than 35 years together, what characterizes a good collaboration for you?
– The collaboration is characterized above all by the enormous respect we have for each other and the common goal of Absolut gaining market share in the growing international spirits market. Talking to each other in “we” terms is pedagogically important for both organizations, we share success and adversity.

What do you think the packaging industry will look like in 10 years?
– I am convinced that glass will continue to play a central role in people’s everyday lives. Glass is completely inert, which means that the content doesn’t pick up any taste or smell from the glass, which makes it optimal for goods that are to be stored for a little longer. With the technological leaps we will see coming, glass will be very attractive as a packaging material. Apart from that, I think we’ll see several different types of bio-based packaging. Again, recyclability will play a major role.

Is there any specific country that you think is a pioneer in the packaging industry?
– I’ll stick my neck out a bit and say Sweden, with 100% green electricity and an efficient factory, we believe that we are pioneers.

Getting transportation is a challenge

With a global shipping crisis at hand, businesses all over the world are having to adapt to a new normal where transportation is at best unstable and at worst unavailable. This is taking a toll at world trade with low stock of many imported goods in several markets. For consumers, alarming headlines like “Empty shelves at IKEA and Walmart”, and ”Container shortage is threatening Christmas shopping” is everyday news. But it’s not only furniture, tech and toys that are affected by the lack of shipping vessels and the massive increase in container prices. The global spirits business is equally impacted by the unstable situation. Being Sweden’s largest single food exporter, Absolut does of course also have to consider the logistical challenges. Both in terms of how to transport goods and how to plan for production.

– For us, the primary issues are due to the instability and uncertainty that prevails right now. We can’t really trust that everything we’ve done before still works the same way we’re used to. It’s one thing that we’re able to produce what we are supposed to at the right time, but it is a whole other matter to know for a fact that we actually have containers available to load the cargo. At the moment, it is sometimes a last-minute call, says Peter Neiderud, Head of Planning and Warehousing at The Absolut Company.

The global logistics chain is a complex matter and the pandemic has had a profound impact on the number of vessels available for transportation and, even more importantly, the number of people working to load and unload cargo at the ports. When covid 19 hit the world, many countries shut down and ports and harbors we’re closed or had their access restricted. With the world now once again opening up, the system has a delay and isn’t running at full speed. This means that the capacity to quickly handle all the incoming and outgoing cargo isn’t optimized. Simply put, there’s just too much work and to few people. The effect is that containers are stuck in customs or storage longer than before and a que starts to form. For Absolut, no immediate changes have had to be made, but planning and forecasting has to be done on a more ad-hoc basis from time to time.

Containers waiting to be unloaded at the harbor in Hamburg.

Our logistics works like this: we have a feeder boat that embarks Åhus once a week to pick up the loaded containers and carry them down to Hamburg and Bremenhafen. It is from there that the majority of all goods are reloaded to ocean freight carriers that transports the goods around the world. In return, the big carriers bring empty containers with them back to port which our feeder boat brings back to Åhus for re-use. This is the flow that we’re dependent on for the logistics to work. And right now, this is not always really happening, which means that in some cases, some of our customers have to wait a bit longer for their products to arrive. Lead times have increased to 6-7 weeks today, from around 4 weeks in normal circumstances. There is an imbalance in trade between China and the USA that adds to the problematic container shortage. Prices have increased 10-fold due to capacity being so much lower than demand right now, says Peter Neiderud.

Are all transports affected by the logistical challenges?
– We have the privilege of having most of our subcontractors at an arm’s length locally. But we do have some suppliers who are a little further away in, for example, Italy and the UK. Especially in the latter case, there is some concern. They not only have problems in the ports, but also with truck deliveries. This means that we have had to re-plan a bit during the year and produce according to availability. This mainly applies to different spices and flavors, which are sourced from all over the world and thus are extra exposed in several stages of the logistics chain. It becomes a kind of “trickle down” effect where certain lead times are doubled or even tripled.

Adding to the though internal logistical challenges are also the fact that many suppliers are facing even greater obstacles. Getting hold of produce to refine is sometimes almost impossible due to high demand on the global market. Many businesses are competing for the same type of raw materials and flavorings which has made the prices skyrocket. – All these price mark-ups are affecting our suppliers and we’re lucky to have such good relations with all our partners – and long-term agreements with open books price adjustment formulas – that we can adjust to the changes in the world market together. We are doing our best to be foresighted when calculating the capacity needed and agile to avoid creating bottlenecks that can impact our supply chain, says Johan Blixt, Director Supply Chain at The Absolut Company.

What does this mean for the production in Åhus?
– We’ve had to increase our production rate significantly. During the year, we’ve added capacity equivalent to one full month’s production. This means that all our five lines have run at maximum capacity, and this has never happened before. We do the best we can to make it work and the staff has been fantastic in adapting to the changes and enduring the extra workload. It is done on a voluntary basis and so far we’ve run many extra Saturdays and extended Fridays to compensate for the increase in demand. And we’ve also hired about 25 extra staff to the production to be able to better manage the spike in demand. So, we have our hands full in Åhus right now, that’s for sure.

Absoluts’ fully automated distribution center in Åhus.

Stockholm ftw

When restrictions are lifted and people are once more permitted to see each other, our cities are rapidly trying to awaken from covid slumber. But the past year has spawned new habits and that means the city – to a certain extent – must adapt to our ways of working, living, and visiting. To come to grips with the changes and to strengthen Stockholm as a progressive, lively, and attractive place, The Stockholm Chamber of Commerce has initiated a partnership with many important stakeholders and businesses in the Swedish Capital. We had a chat with Daniella Waldfogel, Chief Policy Officer at the Chamber, on how to make sure Stockholm stays on the map of where things are at.

What is Partnership for Stockholm?

– It’s a much-needed initiative that aims at joining forces between stakeholders in the business community with the aim of giving the city a renaissance after the pandemic. It’s no secret that the pandemic has taken a particularly hard toll on the bigger cities and urban areas and Stockholm is no exception. The blow to many businesses in for example in the visitor’s economy and the creative sector was devastating as the entire world had to press pause. The blow was also immediate as many businesses in the city are relying on a certain pulse and flow of people. Partnership for Stockholm is a forum where we can interact in finding solutions that will retain and increase the attraction for the Swedish capital as a creative center.

How’s the city doing now?

– It’s really starting to come alive again. There’s so much positive energy around now that was missing just a few months back. The economy as a whole has been able to come out of the pandemic quite unharmed apart from the few sectors that were hit extremely hard. Miraculously many smaller businesses managed to stay afloat and alive, and we have not seen mass unemployment, bankruptcies or declining growth as many anticipated in the spring of 2020. As a result, Stockholm has been able to maintain its character. 

And how was Stockholm pre-covid?

– Stockholm was growing in terms of culture and entertainment. I think we were beginning to really establish ourselves as a more international city, similar to say Copenhagen. We understand that we can’t compete with size, compared to other global metropolis, however we are ambitious and willing to try new things. With that being said – I also think we can be even more influenced by other global vibrant cities when it comes to for example the night economy – making the city vibrant during more hours a day, and more days a week. 

What can Stockholm do to continue to position itself as an attractive place to live and work post covid?

– ­I think we have a good starting point. There’s so much competence and smartness in the city, we have a unique headquarter economy as well as an amazing start-up scene that attracts talent from all over the world. However, we are struggling with a dysfunctional housing market. People can’t afford to buy apartments and there are no flats to rent. We also have a problematic situation in the capital region with rising criminality and segregation. These issues need to be addressed with the right measures. This development can unfortunately also affect our attractiveness and competitiveness. Stockholm is still a safe city, but that needs to be both communicated and experienced in reality.

Would you say that the housing-situation is the biggest concern?

– I believe that the housing issue is becoming very pressing – especially for young people that want to move to the city for work. Today this is getting more and more difficult as the threshold for entering the housing market is getting higher and higher. This is extremely problematic for young talent – but it has also become a significant recruitment problem for businesses. Next year is election year, I hope that we will see a much-needed debate around the housing situation in the city region.

Do you think we need to rethink or rebuild the city?

– Not really. But we need to expand the city outwards. There are many great initiatives taken in the southern parts of the city, where we have traditional suburbs that are becoming integrated parts of the city, but with their own unique flavor. Covid might actually have helped this transition as many people have been forced to stay home and thus started to enjoy what’s right outside their doors more. That makes for great potential to keep developing clusters outside of the city center. I’m thinking about local shops, neighborhood bars and cafés, cultural venues and so on. We’re already considered as one of the most beautiful and cleanest capitals in the world. We’re not as buzzing as London or perhaps as creative as Copenhagen, but we have other strong assets. We have a very innovative economy; the city is beautiful and its always close to nature wherever you are. Stockholm is also a very conscious and sustainable city and I think there’s great potential in exploring all this even more when promoting the city.

Gotta Catch ’Em All

One of the many private Absolut collections. Photo and collection: Iñaki Zabala

Over the years, the Absolut bottle has become a true design icon. An icon that has been reborn over and over again through different collections and collaborations with artists, creatives and designers. In other words – a perfect item for picky collectors. Today, there are over 5000 Absolut Collectors in the world, all searching, collecting and trading bottles to obtain complete series or hunt down the most rare items out there. We had a chat with Annika Skohg, Brand Manager at the Absolut Company and responsible for supporting the Collectors community from a brand perspective.

What is Absolut Collectors?

Absolut Collectors is the collective name for the group of people that collect Absolut-bottles and something that has emerged organically entirely from the interest of consumers. From a company perspective we are really happy to see so many brand lovers all over the world and we want to support the initiative as much as we can to make sure that the collectors feel like they are a part of the Absolut-family.

How does Absolut support Absolut Collectors?

The biggest investment we do is the big collectors meetings that we’ve been hosting since 2010. Many of the meetings have been held in Åhus and the most recent one was in 2019, just before covid. At the last meeting there were over 350 attendants – so many that we had to divide the event into two different meetings, and that is still only a very small part of the thousands of collectors that exist. The arrangement is that Absolut hosts the events and the collectors pay for their own flights and hotels.
The meetings are an opportunity for the collectors to meet each other and to visit Åhus – the heart of the brand and the place where it all began. The meetings are also an opportunity for the collectors and the company to get together. At the last meeting, many people from the board joined in to show to the collectors how important they are to the brand.

We also support the collectors through information in different Facebook forums. There are about 20 forums in different markets where collectors communicate and trade bottles with each other – all created by private actors. To serve the collectors we proactively share facts about product launches, availability, and sizes. Most of our communication with the community takes place through these forums and it is also where we invite them to the meetings.

Absolut Collectors during a Collectors meeting in Åhus, 2019. Photo: Gustaf Kaiser

How many collectors do you estimate there are in the world?

There are over 5,000 collectors worldwide in over 50 different countries that we are aware of. In addition we estimate that there are many more outside the facebook groups that we can’t keep track of.

Where in the world do you find most collectors?

The collectors family is very much global but Central and South America has the highest concentration of collectors – Mexico and Brazil in particular. We also have a lot of collectors in Europe where the majority comes from Germany, Sweden, UK, Spain and Portugal. In Asia, South Korea definitely has the high seat when it comes to collectors. A common factor among the markets with the most collectors is that the collectors usually have a very good relation with the respective local market company.

Private collection. Photo and collection: Iñaki Zabala

Why do you think there is such a big interest in collecting Absolut-bottles?

I think one of the reasons is because the bottles have always had such beautiful, fun and creative designs – but also that the bottle became an icon in Absolut’s history very early on. When it was first launched, it had a design that hadn’t been seen before, something that truly stood out from the crowd and that inspired many of our campaigns, including ‘Absolut Perfection’, and today it’s one of the most iconic bottle silhouettes in the world. So being able to buy an icon for 20-30 dollars is very attractive. Moreover, throughout the years Absolut has been surprising, extremely creative and it is clear that consumers want to be associated with things that are creative, progressive, and artistic.

Besides the love for Absolut, is there anything that the collectors have in common?

For one, there are many more men than women amongst the collectors – we’re not really sure why. Besides that it’s hard to see any other common factors. Agewise and geographically it’s very mixed. What you can say is that everyone treats each other like family. There is a lot of trust among the collectors, something that is necessary when they exchange bottles with each other.

Private collection. Photo and collection: Michelle

What is the strangest request that you’ve received from a collector?

We get all kinds of requests but we recently received an interesting email proposing we should name a street in Åhus ‘Absolut collectors street’. That was a first.

Which bottle is the most desirable among collectors?

It’s very individual, everyone has their collection that they want to complete. But like all collectors, they desire the most unique items. Many of the collectors focus on collecting complete series – for example City Bottles (artists in different cities have made versions of the bottle to pay tribute to their respective hometowns*) or the different sizes of Absolut Original through the ages. Another example is ‘Absolut Unique’ – a series of numbered bottles that are completely unique or Absolut 40 – our anniversary bottle from when Absolut turned 40.

* editors note

What are your future plans for Absolut Collectors?

As for today, we do not have our own forum to reach out to the collectors but in the near future, we plan to set up our own Facebook group through Absolut’s global page to make it easier for us to reach out to collectors on a global level.

Private collection. Photo and collection: Michelle

We asked three devoted collectors about the crown jewel/-s in their respective collections:

Iñaki Zabala, 46, Bilbao, Spain, an Absolut Collector for 15 years.

A few years ago when Michel Roux passed, he appeared on The New York Times frontpage with a set of 3 bottles of the statehood collection (Absolut Texas, Absolut Washington, Absolut New York). I now have those 3 bottles at home and to me they are as important as Michel Roux was to Absolut.

Iñaki Zabala
Michel Duroux and the Statehood bottles

Michelle, 48, Matawan, New Jersey, US, has a collection with over 800 bottles.

To pick a favorite bottle would be like picking a favorite child! But the bottles that mean the most to me are the ones from the collectors meetings that are signed by all my Absolut friends from around the world.

Michelle’s favourite bottle with signatures from other collectors

Marco Moliterni, 38, Milan, Italy, has a collection with over 300 bottles.

I started collecting Absolut seven years ago. It all started with a Unique given to me by a friend for my birthday. As for today, my collection includes some very rare pieces such as Absolut Glow (thailand, 2012), Absolut Philipp Plein (Austria, 2010), Absolut Freestyle (France, 2004), Absolut Bodyart (Italy, 2005) and Absolut Gareth Pugh (2011, fashion week).

Marco Moliterni

Getting ready for the future

New generations mean new drinking habits. For younger consumers it’s important to make conscious decisions, both regarding what you drink, but also for when, where and with whom you drink it. That means the market for Ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages has exploded. We had a chat with The Absolut Company’s Sofia Heuer, Director Global Consumer Insights & Planning and Fredrik Syrén, Director Global Channel Marketing, Brand Advocacy and RTD’s, on how to pick up the trends and turn them into products. 

Sofia, how do you work with consumer insights?

In many ways. Partly specific to The Absolut Company and our portfolio, but we also work with trend and foresight reports for the entire Pernod Ricard group. You could say that it is our job to identify the trends and then connect them and define what they mean for our brands. The method is very much based on understanding different target groups, where we have an ongoing dialogue with them on various subjects. We do, for example, in-depth interviews, ethnographic research, group interviews, social listening, continuous monitoring and ad-hoc coverage.

And which are the biggest consumer trends right now?

The convenience segment has had a significant increase the last years, and there are a couple of underlying trends driving this change. For example, there has been a strong development of what we call daytime drinking the past few years – when you don’t just consume alcohol in the evenings. For example, it could be about festivals, having a picnic outdoors or just hanging out with friends. That’s where ready-to-drink products fits nicely. They are easy to keep at home in the fridge and provides variety of flavors as well as enable discovery of new cocktails, without the fuzz of having to have ingredients and mixers at home. In addition, since they’re low in alcohol, you can easily keep track of how much you drink compared to if you mix the drinks yourself, which is important from a health and wellness perspective. In other words, with ready-to-drink products you are more in control of your alcohol intake. Another reason to why consumers are looking for control is because of social media. Everything you do can now be documented beyond your control.

How do you work to support the development of new products?

We put a lot of effort into understanding consumers needs and what they are attracted to in products and in this way we can get a better idea of which flavors to either pick up or remove. Right now, for example, we are seeing an interest in cross-pollination of flavors across continents, in the same way as the fusion cuisine in cooking. There is a lot of inspiration from street food and peppery flavors. Of course, a lot of inspiration comes from Asia, but also from Mexico and South America.

Kahlúa RTD Espresso Martini

Fredrik, why does The Absolut Company focus so much on the Ready to drink-segment?

The market has exploded in several parts of the world in the last couple of years. Much of this development stems from a strong US-based trend which can be summarized as “better for me”. You want to enjoy a drink, but not get too many calories. You want something lighter than a beer to feel less full. This has led to the strong growth of the hard seltzers segment. Another trend that has also helped to popularize RTD’s is that it has become much more premium. Now there are high-quality cocktails in a can that taste perfect and that you just drink from the can or pour and serve. We have, for example, launched a range of Absolut cocktails and Kahlúa has its popular Espresso Martini. Malibu has the classic Pina Colada cocktail and some other refreshing offers.

Malibu RTD’s

What differences are there between the generations?

In terms of age, one might be inclined to generalize a bit and say that RTD’s mainly appeal to younger target groups. But older target groups are also starting to open up to the convenience of ready-mixed cocktails. One explanation for this may be that younger generations aren’t mainly looking for the effects of alcohol. For example, we see a clear trend that nightclubs are no longer as important as bars when it comes to consumption. The pandemic has also accelerated this shift. Today you hang out more at home and then it is convenient to have a variety pack in the fridge so you can serve perfectly chilled drinks to your guests without having to worry about mixing it right or having all the ingredients available. We also see that this trend continues after the pandemic. The forecast for the top 20 markets is growth of about 20 percent annually.

Sofia Heuer, Director Global Consumer Insights & Planning and Fredrik Syrén, Director Global Channel Marketing, Brand Advocacy and RTD’s.

Is this a global trend, or are there any regional specifics?

The development differs between markets. The US is both the largest market and also have the highest growth with over 40 percent growth last year. The calculations made by independent research bodies are that RTD’s will overtake wine in terms of volume in the American market already this year and be the second largest alcohol segment after beer. Next to the US, Japan is the largest market, but with a much stronger presence of domestic brands. In Europe, we’ve been a bit slow to embrace RTD’s, but as there are more and more premium and “better for me” alternatives, the market is showing a strong momentum now as well.

How to find the right person for the right place

Kerstin Lindström, VP Human Resources, The Absolut Company.

Responsibility for people requires good judgement of character with a great knowledge and skillset to help key talents within the organization to develop their careers. We had a chat with Kerstin Lindström, VP Human Resources, about the challenges of being the rebel in the group, how to break silos throughout the company and the recipe for success in attracting the world’s best talents to the cold, dark north. And how to find the best nose in the business.

How do you work to ensure that Absolut always is perceived as relevant?

Well, for starters by making sure we’re being perceived as relevant to all our existing employees. Our co-workers are our most important ambassadors and if they thrive, we will attract others to join us. I think it is important to have that self-confidence as an employer. Then it’s of course a necessity for all of us who work with HR to keep up with trends in the work force market and in society to be able to constantly review our offer. It can be about everything from flexible benefits to ensuring a good working environment, offering relevant developing opportunities and, not least, career paths. I think we do all this, and much more, very well today, but going forward we will put even more focus on communicating about The Absolut Company as an employer. We want to reach out with our message what makes us special and why you should join our team; internally to build engagement and retain our people, and externally to attract future talent.

What are the challenges when searching for the right candidates for a global organization?

We have great hiring processes and tools to support quality assurance in the candidate experience. We also have a great advantage in being able to get assistance from the broad HR network that exist within the Pernod Ricard Group. It is easy to become a bit overwhelmed when searching for candidates in certain markets. Take South Korea as an example: here, we depend on the local team to help us find the right candidates. They are the ones keeping track of the smartest channels to use and how to advertise and customize requirements of profiles in that market. The cultural aspects are super important and can’t be overlooked so local knowledge is one of the keys to finding the right talent. When it comes to candidates for leadership team positions, the recruitments are handled centrally as part of the global talent process, coordinated by the HR team at Pernod Ricard head office in Paris and involving all affiliates.

What types of recruitments are you most passionate about?

I like all types of recruitments. It’s so cool to meet other people who are passionate about what they do – just as I’m passionate about what I do. I am very proud of TAC and it is always great to get the opportunity to present what we are good at and what we want to achieve and understand how the company needs fits with what different candidates themselves are good at and how they want to contribute, simply put; to find a happy match!

What does your dream recruitment look like?

One that I was very excited about was when we searched for a new “Billion Dollar Nose”. Our sensory expert retired and needed to be replaced and we were literally looking around the world for suitable candidates, but in the end, we ended up hiring internally. Giving a development opportunity to Daniel Nilsson, an existing talent, in strong competition, and finding what we needed in our own backyard was a very satisfying feeling. Then, of course, I must also mention the recruitment of our Chief Creative Officer Tad Greenough. It was a true dream recruitment and I think it’s amazing that we were able to attract such a strong talent all the way from Oregon to Stockholm. Tad is truly a ‘perfect match’ that makes a difference and contributes to leadership, creativity and relationship building. Tad embraces our culture and values and is a good ambassador.

Kerstin Lindström, VP Human Resources, The Absolut Company.

Which roles are most difficult to recruit?

For TAC, there are two types of recruitments that can be extra tricky: finding specific functional expertise and candidates with international experience. We’ve historically had a strategy to find and recruit good generalists, but since a while back we are building a clearer expert organization. And this transformation is somewhat challenging from time to time. Recruitment where significant international experience is required is also difficult at times. We’re in constant need of new perspectives from other cultures and finding people with the right skillset, who are also used to working in a global context, is hard. At the same time, it is vital for us. Our brands have a global reach and Sweden is a small country, with few companies providing this type of global roles. To find the right talent, with the right experience, we need to challenge ourselves to be flexible and creative and not necessarily demand that the candidates must be in Sweden to work for TAC.

Has the pandemic made you think in a different way in these matters?

Yes partially. In TAC, depending on type of job or course, our people had the opportunity for some remote work even before Covid, but the development during the pandemic has accelerated the change. We’ve now proven to ourselves that more work than we expected can be done virtually with good results. I believe there is a general maturity in Sweden to work remotely, compared to some countries where office tradition is more rooted. The dual responsibility of parenting and our culture of trust might be part of the explanation. With this said we should not forget that we are in the conviviality business, the meeting in real life between people enjoying our products is in our DNA. We love to come together and interact, build on ideas and collaborate.

What questions do you usually have to deal with at work?

My role is to drive the HR topics on a strategic level; have a holistic view and lead the way for my team. I often get involved when someone in my team wants to have feedback on a proposal or ask for a second opinion before deciding. I try to avoid being too stuck in details. Within Pernod Ricard, the business model is largely based on relationships and collaboration, so I often engage when we need to establish contacts or find solutions across functions or affiliates. Since a few years back, the group has built up several global processes within HR, and I appreciate that development. I think it makes us more professional and more efficient as an organization; with higher quality thanks to leveraging expertise and decisions from skilled people looking at the full picture and common needs.

Which issues are the most difficult to deal with?

Change and challenging status quo is always difficult. As humans, we’re programed to avoid change. Security is usually the first choice, so the uncertainty of something new can be scary. But constantly develop staff and involve them in changes is one of the keys to getting people on board and feel they are part of the transformation journey. Our industry is undergoing rapid change and we, as a company, must keep up. This of course means that we sometimes need to bring in new skills and capabilities from outside expertise, but we also value continuity and experience and we believe in constant capability building of our people. The mix is ​​what makes the drink tasty, right. We often choose to refine, rather than renew, we try to build on what we have and often implement changes in small steps instead of radical leaps.

“We’ve come a long way when it comes to supporting the development of independent employees and giving them freedom under responsibility and accountability. It’s a cornerstone, just like trust.”

How do you work with building functional teams?

Within Pernod Ricard, we have an HR strategy called TransfoHRm and in that strategy we clearly communicate that we put the employee in the center. We must have mixed teams with a variety of perspectives, and we strive for empowerment, i.e. to strengthen individuals and teams to work independently. This works very well within TAC and in the company culture; we’ve come a long way when it comes to supporting the development of independent employees and giving them freedom under responsibility and accountability. It’s a cornerstone, just like trust.

What is most challenging in your role?

That there are many initiatives knocking on the door and a very ambitious transformation agenda in the group. It’s all great stuff, but it takes a lot of hands-on work for the HR team to adapt and implemented locally and we need to be mindful about people’s time but in our team but also others. This means we need to pace launches and roll outs based on what the organization can grasp, take in and embrace.

How do you handle conflicts?

Communication is always the key, I would say. To get an understanding of the different perspectives and try to work out the knots in the teams. If there is a squeak in the machinery, it is important to quickly bring up the problem on the table and talk about it before a misunderstanding or misalignment leads to a conflict. People managers need to be clear with feedback and dare to be open – another aspect is not to be afraid to reach out and seek help if needed.

How do you work with inclusion?

This is a super important topic for both The Absolut Company and Pernod Ricard. We took a holistic approach at group level on all matters of inclusion a long time ago, but in 2015 the work was intensified when we launched our Better Balance program. It started with a broad, group-wide campaign with an enormous amount of training efforts to increase knowledge, awareness and commitment at all levels of the organization. And our diversity and inclusion program has really paid off – although of course we can get even better. Right now, I think we are in an exciting phase where the Pernod Ricard group has decided to inject new energy in the field and also dare to commit to clear goals on global level, for example when it comes to female representation in group top management. We see, for example, that competitors such as Diageo are very good at highlighting their diversity work and we do not want to be perceived as lesser. To meet the group ambition, we at TAC have a dedicated person in the HR team who is working with inclusion matters and will lead the work of updating our strategy and action plan. At the back of these initiatives, we will also have a strong concept and communication platform that the group has given the creative and audacious name “Live without Labels”.

How do you work to lift employees within the organization?

In managerial training, we talk a lot about celebrating success and giving recognition for good work. It is an important part of the leadership within TAC. We also try to allocate a generous training budget that is used for all employees. But our learning and development strategy is to learn not only from courses and external programs, it is also about learning from others and most importantly you learn on the job. This way, we can broaden and deepen competencies, build capabilities and elevate talent. Another initiative coming up next fiscal year is ‘Pay for Performance’ this is about reinforcing a high performing culture and encourage our people to go the extra mile and differentiate reward based on it.

What experiences have you had with you in the past? And is there any part that you are working on developing?

When growing up, I was naturally drawn to different leadership roles. I did team gymnastics when I was younger and already at the age of 12, I took my first leadership assignment as an assistant coach. Then I remained a coach for 25 years. Sports gave me an incredible joy and desire to constantly strive to achieve my own goals as well as the team’s and help others reach theirs. Then, on the other hand, the flip side of having a strong competitive instinct is that I can get a bit impatient in my eagerness to achieve results. When I was young, I was quick to draw conclusions and find solutions. And sometimes I was in too much of a hurry. Therefore, I have actively worked to learn to listen first, trust the process and adjust my pace. This makes collaboration so much easier, more fun and more effective!

What are you most proud of having accomplished during your time at TAC?

Being a leader at TAC, one of the most important jobs is to safeguard our TAC Values; Together – Audacious – Committed. The teamwork put in when developing these company values and behaviors a few years ago, and how well they describe our culture in a sustainable and long-term way, is something I’m very proud of. They are our common foundation and guide us every day in all types of situations – and I think they are fantastic.

What would you have done if you had not worked at TAC?

Then I would have liked to work in the book publishing industry. I love to read.

The next person to interview in this series is the TAC CFO Donny Tobin. What would you like to ask him?

I think it would be interesting to hear his perspective on what it’s like for him to be part of an executive leadership team for the first time in his career. This is a position that many aspire to, but which relatively few succeed in reaching. What does he think is the biggest difference compared to before now that he is holding one of the company’s top management positions? And of course, it would be interesting to hear about his journey from Ireland, to US and now Sweden; what is sticking out as different and what surprised him about Sweden and TAC?

Paper bottle development reaches significant milestone

The story of Absolut Paper and the vision to create a recyclable and fully bio-based paper bottle continues together with PABOCO. We’ve heard rumors of major progress in the project, so who better to talk to than The Absolut Company’s own Future of Packaging Director Louise Werner?

We’re told you have news from the PABOCO community regarding the paper bottle. Would you like to share with us?

Yes, we recently reached a very important milestone. We have managed to integrate the barrier – the coating that separates the fluid from the paper – into the paper itself. With an integrated barrier we can use much less barrier material and start testing different bio-based solutions.

Will the paper bottle still be recyclable? Will it be plastic free?

Yes, it will be recycled as paper. The recycling rate of paper is 70 percent worldwide and separating paper from other materials is nothing new for the recycling industry. That is important, because now when we can integrate the barrier, we are testing different bio-based coatings, including bio-plastics. The important thing here is to use as little barrier material as possible and still ensure good product quality.

What input did you get from the consumers who tested the bottle earlier this year?
What satisfies me the most is that virtually everyone asked how they should recycle the bottle. It shows that people care just as much as we do. And although it’s nothing less than what we expect from our consumers, I’m still pleased that they are on board with our vision of having a fully recyclable bottle.

The bottle also has a very special touch and feel to it, with a smooth surface and detailed design elements. People said they appreciated that, and they recognized the high level of innovation that has been put into developing the bottle. They said it was in line with the Absolut brand.

How has the PABOCO partnership helped in the development of the bottle?

We are already two years into development, but we’re still constantly learning from each other. We share insights on everything that can help push development forward, like how new barrier materials performs, how consumers react to the bottle and how well the production lines manage to adapt to an entirely new packaging. Thanks to our diverse needs and expertise, all companies involved in the Paboco Community contribute in different ways to make sure we will have the most durable and sustainable bottle out there.

The Paper Bottle Community.

What’s next for the paper bottle?

With this important milestone achieved, we are eager to test the bottle even further. We test it both in labs to make sure it’s durable over time, and with consumers to make sure it’s appreciated and possible for a large-scale launch. We’re of course also looking forward to exploring bio-based materials that could work as a barrier inside the bottle.

How close are you to achieving the goal of a recyclable and fully bio-based paper bottle?

Integrating the coating into the paper is a huge step forward, and for the first time we are showing a prototype that is very close to our final vision. But we still have some important goals to achieve, like scaling the technology and quality testing of the integrated bio-based material that will replace the plastic film we use today. That is not done overnight though, so we’re still at least one and a half years from seeing it on shelves.

Read more about PABOCO here.

Doing good in times of troubles

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but in the Philippines and Mexico, things have been really challenging. We had a talk with Lynne Millar, Purchasing Director at Malibu and Kahlúa operations at Pernod Ricard, on the status of the Malibu initiative the Coconut Commitment and the Kahlúa project; Coffee for Good.

How are the Coconut Commitment and Coffee for Good initiatives doing?

If I start with the Malibu program, life in the Philippines during the pandemic has been especially difficult. In rural areas there is a lack of sanitation and getting access to provide support can be a major challenge as most of the Philippines has been in a lockdown. In the region where most of our coconut farmers are located, the situation has been even worse with the military taking control of the area and setting up checkpoints in efforts to try and control the spread of the virus and to prevent migration of people to different regions. In these areas there is little access to fresh water and no money to buy sanitation equipment and extra food supplies, but within the framework of the program our partner the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) was able to access additional funds from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development to help aid the community by distributing emergency packs with rice, corn, bottles water and face masks to the farmers. At times, we really didn’t know if our farmers even had enough food to feed their families, so it’s amazing that we could help in some small way.

In addition to the hardest of times facing a global pandemic, the country was struck by a super typhoon in November claiming several lives and affecting over 2 million people, with widespread destruction of homes. As a culture they are so incredibly resilient.

The program was naturally impacted heavily by these circumstances and everyone connected to the project has had to adapt. It was our initial plan to sit down face to face with the farmers to assess a starting point for each individual by defining number of hectares planted, number of family members and typical annual yields and income. This was of course not possible now, so we tried to do what we could from a distance, but it wasn’t easy when we couldn’t talk directly with all farmers. But by reaching 10-20 percent of the farmers, we’re at least able to make qualified assumptions based on the intel we were able to get. We will validate our assumptions when it’s possible.

“Our ambition is to double the work to make up for time lost during last year.”

We also had to cancel all on-site training of the farmers, and instead switch to digital sessions, but eventually we managed to have a consultant visit the area once the hardest restrictions were lifted. The consultant then carried out an assessment of the situation and put together a plan for a set of demo farms that can help train the farmers in sustainable farming methods and how to maximise the efficiency of the farm to both improve the yield and minimize the negative impact on the environment. When time allows, we will build additional demo farms with the involvement of the farming communities, especially the youth. Our ambition is to double the work to make up for time lost during last year. We’re ready with all the infrastructure needed when we’re allowed to restart at site. So, we’ve not wasted any time, but we’ve made less progress than we hoped. Our major targets over the four years of the initiative are to increase the farmer’s yield by 20%, increase income by 15% and also to help the farmers to adapt to more sustainable farming practices, guided by the Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA) tool developed by the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform.

Image from a previous site visit in the Philippines for the Coconut Commitment program.

And how has the situation been in Mexico for the Coffee for Good farmers?

It has been a similar difficult situation. The Veracruz region was mainly cut off and access controlled by military adding to that, there was some skepticism amongst the farmers on the severity of the covid virus initially. Our NGO Fondo Para La Paz did their best to educate the farmers and raise their awareness and eventually they understood the serious nature of the situation. Even if Kahlua invests a lot in the program, when Covid 19 impacted the world in 2020 Kahlúa immediately allocated additional funds to ensure that the farmers and the team of our NGO partners Fondo Para La Paz had access to protective clothing and sanitizer products.

In terms of progress for the project, things were slowed down a bit, but the Coffee for Good initiative is so mature by now that there was no immediate need for new planning. This year, we’ve had bigger yields than ever before, so all the planting and work we’ve been doing is proving successful and generating results. Adding to that, both Brazil and Colombia have had bad crops last year which has driven up the prices to a new high. Good news for our farmers as they could take advantage of a short term opportunity to earn more.

Now that the area has opened up a bit more, our NGO can visit the farms again, and some of the construction projects that has been put on hold can continue again. I’m sure we’ll be up to speed quite fast in Mexico soon.

Lynne Millar, Purchasing Director Malibu and Kahlúa operations at Pernod Ricard (to the right) during a previous visit in Mexico for the Coffee for Good program.

What are the next steps?

For Malibu, we’re really ready to ramp things up. Both by increasing the training of the farmers and the physical help in providing crops for planting. We have a program to replace old coconut trees that are not productive and we’re also looking into varieties that are more resistant to climate change so we can maximize yields over time. That’s our top priority from now on.

For Kahlúa, our plan is to reach the target of 100 percent sustainable coffee by 2022. And we’re well on track to achieving this. Our long-term plan is also to continue to purchase from these communities for many years, even after we’ve completed our Coffee for Good project.

About the programs:

The Coconut Commitment

The Coconut Commitment is Malibu’s way of helping to positively impact the livelihood for 500 coconut farmers in the Philippines by 2024. The goal is to increase their income and farm yields and help them adapt their farming practices.

Coffee for Good

Kahlúa’s initiative Coffee for Good is a sustainable development program designed to have a meaningful environmental and socio-economic impact on the lives of Mexican coffee farmers and their families. Shining a spotlight on how it sources its coffee, Kahlúa has also outlined its ultimate goal – to source 100% of its coffee from sustainable communities by 2022.